Monday, February 25, 2013

Does social media change the meaning of “solicitation?”


Consider the following scenario. Your company uses sales representatives to sell its products. To protect your company’s relationship with its other employees, you require all sales reps to sign a no-solicitation agreement as a condition of their employment. Under the agreement reps cannot “directly or indirectly solicit, entice, persuade or induce any … employee … of the Company … to terminate or refrain from renewing or extending his or her employment, association or membership with the Company … or to become employed by or enter into a contractual relationship” with the employee executing the no-solicitation agreement.

If an employee connects with co-workers on Facebook or any other social network, and then leaves your company, has he violated the no-solicitation agreement by maintaining the connections?

According to the court in Pre-Paid Legal Services, Inc. v. Cahill (E.D. Okla. 1/22/13), the answer is, “No.”

In this case, PPLSI complains that Facebook posts that tout generally the benefits of Nerium as a product and Defendant's professional satisfaction with Nerium constitute solicitations presumably because some of Defendant's Facebook “friends” are also PPLSI sales associates and may view Defendant’s posts….

PPLSI has not shown any intent on Defendant’s part to solicit current PPLSI associates…. There was no evidence presented that Defendant’s Facebook posts have resulted in the departure of a single PPLSI associate, nor was there any evidence indicating that Defendant is targeting PPLSI sales associates by posting directly on their walls or through private messaging.

In other words, because the employer could not demonstrate any intent on the part of the departed employee to solicit other employees via Facebook, the mere fact that they are Facebook friends is not enough to violate the no-solicitation covenant. Presumably, the same logic would hold true if the no-solicitation covenant applied to customers instead of employees.

One case does not equal dogma (although Cahill did discuss and agree with another similar case from an Indiana appellate court). These cases are highly fact specific and depend as much on the court's perception of the parties’ equities as they do on the language of the challenged agreements.

If, however, you are concerned about ex-employees using Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other social networks to lure employees or customers, why not include language in your no-solicitation agreement to cover such a possibility?

“Solicitation” includes, but is not limited to, offering to make, accepting an offer to make, or continuing an already existing online relationship via a Social Media Site. “Social Media Site” means all means of communicating or posting information or content of any sort on the Internet, including to your own or someone else’s web log or blog, journal or diary, personal web site, social networking or affinity web site, web bulletin board or a chat room, in addition to any other form of electronic communication.

By defining “solicitation” to include passive social media connections and activities, you are at least putting yourself into a position to have a court consider shutting down an ex-employee for maintaining online relationships.

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